Exploring THE GRIEF OF OTHERS with Writer/Director Patrick Wang

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Having your film make it to the big screen is a dream come true for any writer/director. Having three films show in theaters within a week of each other is a bit absurd, but it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more thoughtful and unique artist than Patrick Wang.

I previously had the opportunity to interview Patrick about his two-part, four-hour indie wonder, A Bread Factory: Part One & Part 2, which began showing in LA and NY on October 26.

This time around, Patrick and I discuss his previous film, The Grief of Others, an adaptation of the novel by Leah Hager Cohen. The film premiered internationally at Cannes in 2015 and has played in over 200 theaters around France. Now, The Grief of Others has made its way back to the States and will be released in LA and NY on November 2, 2018.

In this interview, Patrick and I speak about translating novels to the screen, the power of superimpositions, and writing scripts that are a little more “flexible” than most.

Angela Bourassa: How did you first come across the novel, and why did you decide to turn it into a film?

Patrick Wang: I know the novelist – she and I have been friends for many years. We met when I was in a community theater production of Madame Butterfly and she wrote a book about it. She’s written many novels, and I love them all, but I never felt particularly compelled to make one into a film. I don’t know if it was something different about this novel or something different about the timing – so much comes down to when things come into your life and spark something that resonates with you at the moment – but I had the book with me, just to read as I was traveling with my first film, and it kind of stepped in and filled that void of, you know, finishing one project and not knowing where you’re going.

Angela Bourassa: Since you knew her, could you explain how you went about optioning the material? Was it just a conversation with your friend or were you getting producers and financiers in line at that point? How did that work out?

Patrick Wang: It was almost like a fantasy, because it was very simple. First thing, I wanted to make sure I read through the novel a couple of times. I hadn’t written anything – I hadn’t written the screenplay, no proposal. I was just reading to make sure that it had the seeds that I felt it needed to really support a film.

And then I just talked to my friend and told her honestly, “I think there may be something here. I would like to try to write a script.” And I asked that if I show it to her and she doesn’t like it that she tell me and that we could just let it go at that. Because I think, like so many things, I don’t particularly like talking about a thing that can be so many things. So many of the choices I make and that she makes as a writer are so unique that I think until you get them down on the page, it’s very hard to talk about.

So I wanted us to have a real thing to talk about, and I also wanted to make sure I had a viable solution to the problems you face as an adapter – how to translate this material and if it can be translated. If you can find that special something that gives you the key.

After that, you asked about the business details – that was so ideal, also. She’s very good friends with her agent and they’ve had a long relationship, and everybody pretty much recognized that there weren’t a lot of dollar signs here and that we were just interested in being good to the material and sharing it with people in a different form. And she had a way of letting go that I don’t know if I could do.

Angela Bourassa: Sure, that was going to be my next question. Because it seems like that would be especially hard when you actually know the writer of the source material – that they might want to have some more ownership…

Patrick Wang: She would ask me questions – and this will tell you a lot about our relationship – some of which, I could tell her my suspicions, ideas I had for dealing with it. But then she would ask me, “Will people get this?” And I would tell her many times, “I don’t know.”

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs.)

Patrick Wang: And part of it is just my style. I like the edge of people understanding. I think it keeps people very active in the process of trying to understand. And I would tell her the things that I think support people going along for the ride even if they don’t know everything. And she was the kind of person who would be creatively turned on by an answer like that.

It’s something that’s such a different set up from when you have producers in the middle, when you have a lot of different agents and other folks in the middle. That answer finds less of a reception. And so it’s really wonderful when you can just talk artist-to-artist, especially when the other artist has this ability to let go and is also intrigued by the things that they don’t know and the excitement of the experiment.

Angela Bourassa: You mentioned “finding the key.” What was your approach to writing this adaptation? How did you go about translating it?

Patrick Wang: I think the key to me was simultaneities. And this is something we do a lot in the theater – we have scenes on top of scenes on top of scenes. You’ll go back and forth, you’ll have voice over, you’ll have projection of one scene over another scene… And I realized that this was a way to get in a lot of material. You’re kind of cheating – you’re doing two or three scenes at once – but it’s also doing that thing novels are great at doing, which is drawing a state of mind that is influenced by many things at once. It’s in the present and then a piece of the past comes in, and then I thought, well, the way a film can paint that psychological state is through this simultaneity.

So then you choose carefully, you know, which things are you going to show at once and how you do it, and then I think you can achieve something that a novel achieves in a different way in a lot more detail, but a version of it you can get in film. And once I started doing that, I started seeing that you could kind of have pieces of things everywhere.

Now, the novel does move back and forth in time, but in much longer sections. It less a point of chaos as it is in the film, but you understand it. And actually the pieces being out of order and fractured helps you understand it.

So that’s sort of the structural thing, but then there was also a kind of design key. I took my cues from and sort of overemphasized an element from the book, which was the dioramas that one of the characters makes, and I started thinking about the film and its scenes as a kind of diorama, you know, where you kind of take these everyday things – there’s nothing too, too spectacular in any of the individual scenes – but the angles that you put them at or the things you put next to each other or what you turn into another thing makes this very surprising and expressive new thing from these daily objects.

Angela Bourassa: Building off of that, I noticed that a lot of scenes in the film are built on pairings. You take two characters either at odds with one another or mirroring each other and put them in a room together. Was that a conscious choice or did that structure just emerge out of the source material?

Patrick Wang: It’s probably a large part from the source material, and then it’s also, in part, my bias in how I understand characters and how I understand settings – mostly through two people. The two-shot is how I understand the scene. Actually, I’d never thought about it that way, but when you said it, it felt very natural that I have this bias toward two at once. In life, also, I function best one-on-one.

Angela Bourassa: I’m the same way. So, I assume you planned to direct all along from your own script?

Patrick Wang: I didn’t know all along. I knew that the first step would be me writing it, and I told this to Leah (the author), “The first step is writing, and then we’ll see what it is. We’ll see if it’s something you want to take or if we should find another producer or director for it.”

Angela Bourassa: Does that affect your writing process – whether or not you know that you’re going to direct the script?

Patrick Wang: No, because I usually write a pretty complete script. I know that some directors who know they’re directing will write in a shorthand. But because of how many people have to come on board, and as non-standard as some of my elements are, I try to have a pretty standard script. So it’s pretty fleshed out and pretty reader-friendly, if a little different.

Angela Bourassa: How so?

Patrick Wang: A little different in that – it’s not that I completely abandon convention, but I will stretch it a little. It’s a little more flexible. Each of the elements I will use just a bit differently sometimes if it helps you get into the tone of a scene. I hope my scripts are very readable and not to foreign so that somebody else could come in and direct, but when I finished this script, I realized that there were questions in how these things are executed that I felt I had to take care of. The experiment would come out very differently if it were not me directing.

Angela Bourassa: Right. In this film, each character has their own grief that they express differently. They’re all weighed down in some way, but somehow the overall tone of the film isn’t overly dark or depressing. How did you manage that? How did you balance the tone of each scene and how they all added together to create this feeling that was definitely somber, but at the same time you don’t want to kill yourself when you walk out of this film?

Patrick Wang: Well, I think that is the nature of grief. I remember in my first film, someone told me that it was very disturbing to see someone who was grieving then smiling a couple of scenes later and laughing, but I think that’s the nature of life. I think that the interaction of grief with the rest of the parts of ourselves is the focus of the film. If you are to come out of your grief, we need to understand what life is like in the moments when you’re not grieving

Angela Bourassa: I don’t want to give anything away, but can you talk a bit about the final shot of the film – the layering of the kitchen and the family. I’d love to hear your thought process there.

Patrick Wang: I remember when I was writing the script, I ended up being really aware, “Jeez, they spend a lot of time in this house.” As a lot of domestic dramas do. And sometimes it can be a very beautiful thing when you’re in a room many times, because you see it in different states.

I had an idea of sort of a wild state of transition for that room that reflects the real breakthrough they make in their life, and it was in line with this aesthetic idea of all these superimpositions that appear throughout the movie and align with the characters’ psychological states. This goes maybe beyond the psychological state and is really more a reflection of the spiritual state of the family as a whole at the end.

The progression of these superimpositions become a touch more complicated, and so it made sense to me that this last one is the most elaborate. And it surprised me – all the pieces and how they came together surprised me because you can’t, as you’re shooting, put all the pieces together literally, so you don’t know quite how they’ll interact.

The Grief of Others will be released in LA and NY on November 2, 2018. Learn more and find tickets here.

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Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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